The challenges of teaching online

Dear Members of ICAEW Academic Community,

I’m writing this to you from my son’s desk in his bedroom – the spring sunlight is streaming through the window and my children are happily doing some home-schooling downstairs with my husband, but believe me lockdown is not always this pleasant!

This is a personally challenging time for us all – working from home or not, caring for children or the elderly, helping others or feeling lonely in self isolation. Whether you feel overwhelmed with work and life or unmotivated and bored (or maybe a bit of both).

Planning your day has become a lot broader and more in your control, although the details about what you can do may be restricted. Make the most of this if you can! To keep motivated try saving your big dopamine hits as rewards (eg scrolling online, sugar, social media). This can help you motivate yourself to complete the activities you need to do (work, study, tidying and cleaning, exercise) but have lower dopamine hits and are therefore less desirable.

It is vital in these times to consider your own mental health and reflect on what works for you, the wonderful CABA charity has lots of guidance on this here. It’s good to consider the basics; sleep, hydration, nutrition and exercise for both physical and mental wellbeing. I invite you to mark yourself on a scale of 1-10 for the areas of physical, psychological (emotional and intellectual) and social wellbeing and see where you need to focus your energies today.

The best advice I have heard from a wise friend recently is “always choose connection”. The three word summary of the psychology of happiness summed up by Dr Christopher Peterson is “other people matter”. So connect to people using the wonderful technology we can use, smile and wave when people pass you, and show gratitude to those working so hard to keep us all safe, healthy and fed.

It’s also hard not to get overwhelmed with negative media and social media pressures (eg you must learn a new skill or language). To help with this I keep a ‘joy list’ of things I can do in 10 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes or an hour which I know cheer me up; things like breathing deeply, going for a run, cooking a meal, watching a film.

It is also a challenging time for students, some who have only been with us for a few months before this chaos and uncertainty, others who were working so hard to complete their studies and looking forward to graduating this summer. Many of the students I teach are international and had to make quick decisions about packing up to return home, or to stay on at University and in a city which was rapidly closing down. It is hard to get in contact with many of the cohorts I teach now and I always find the connection is harder to build through a screen. I’m using tools such as LinkedIn groups, Skype messenger as well as email to find additional routes to connecting to students.

For our colleagues too coping with change is difficult. From changes to REF to teaching suddenly being online and assessments, many of which were agreed months ago, now being modified. We have many new policies such as a new ‘no-disadvantage’ policy which many other Universities are adopting, and that we need to understand how to navigate and apply.

The challenges of teaching online are considerable; we have uncertainties with technology, can’t see those who we are teaching and never feel quite sure if our students are understanding what we are saying or now. I’ve been teaching online webinars on our Global MBA for three years and really enjoy it. Despite that this teaching is often in evenings and weekends (and often Saturday night!) students respond very well to the teaching style I’ve developed. The feedback, you can see from my LinkedIn profile, included “She was able to connect with with the students and the workshop was thoroughly engaging”. Given all I’ve learnt the following tips might really help you;

  • Test out the technology first – try a call/ workshop/ lecture with someone else first so you feel more confident in knowing what happens when you ‘share screen’ or ‘turn on your video’
  • Make sure an online webinar is different from a video. If you find yourself talking for more than 5-10 minutes consider delivering this material as a video and use your webinar for more interactive conversations
  • Use student’s names. If they have names which are tricky to pronounce ask them to spell their name phonetically in brackets after their actual name to help you with pronunciation. As soon as you say a person’s name they feel included and engaged.
  • Start with a gentle introduction getting to know participants. I’d always say where I am and what is going on for me. I ask everyone to tell me where they are, what the weather is like, what time it is, what they’ve got to drink. This might seem superfluous, but if people feel you are interested in them they are far more likely to engage.
  • After this I always ask students to share their expectations and concerns. This keeps the dialogue two way and helps show that the lecturer is approachable.
  • Keep the chat function up and running and respond to any questions as quickly as you can (even if it’s a comment saying “I’ll answer that in a minute”). Give as much praise as you can to those joining in.
  • Talk about making the session ‘a worthwhile investment of time’ students need to ask as many questions as possible to make sure they get the most out of the session.
  • Use your video. Students are not expecting a TV presenter or a model, but by smiling and looking out at your screen at students this becomes a much more personal experience.
  • Try get students to put on their videos – again this is very difficult, students may say their video is not working because they don’t want to be seen, but if you can reassure them you’re not looking at their messy bedrooms or pyjamas, you just want to be able to see when they’re struggling with difficult concepts this might help.
  • If you can, get students to work in groups of 4-5. They can use platforms such as Whatsap, email, skype, messenger etc to complete a tasks and report back to you per group. You will have to divide up the groups, arrange a time to meet back and put the tasks clearly up on the screen. This works wonders with engagement from individuals who might be cautious answering questions on a bigger group and groups will feedback to you with any group members not participating. Good group tasks might be things like; questions on a case study, thoughts on a current issue, or asking what they struggle most with on this subject or what they need to do next.
  • On larger webinars try to use polling software – anything where students feel like they’re contributing to what’s happening makes the learning less passive and more engaging.

 

Wherever you are when you are reading this message I hope you are taking good care of yourself and those around you. I hope you can be honest with yourself about how you feel and use this time to devise a routine which works for you and those around you to rise to the challenges and strengthen your resilience.

Take good care of yourself

Jenni

 

Jenni Rose

Course Leader of Flourishing in Academia,

Mother to demanding 9,6 and 3 years old

Programme Director of the BSc Accounting Programme at the University of Manchester

FCA, BFP and PGCert.

Anonymous